The Most Rotten Part About Thanksgiving Day

November 26, 2015, 10:00 AM UTC
Black Friday Shopping Begins On Thanksgiving Evening
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 27: A boy waits to enter the Toys R Us in Times Square on November 27, 2014 in New York, United States. Black Friday sales, which now begin on the Thursday of Thanksgiving, continue to draw shoppers out for deals and sales. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
Photograph by Andrew Burton—Getty Images

This year, all kinds of holiday shopping traditions are being upended as desperate retailers do everything they can think of to increase sales. On what’s being called “Gray Thursday,” retailers like Walmart (WMT), Toys“R”Us, Target (TGT), and Kmart are giving shoppers the jump on Black Friday by opening on the evening of Thanksgiving, presumably after you’ve had enough turkey and cranberry sauce. JC Penney (JCP) is opening even earlier — at 3 p.m.

This is a rotten break for employees forced to work while the rest of the family gathers together, as I point out here. REI, the outdoor sports and gear retailer, seems to be taking another approach, closing its 143 outlets on both Thanksgiving AND Black Friday. This move may earn REI a lot of publicity and goodwill. It is also consistent with the company’s brand as an environmentally concerned business and its “get out there” message: In this busy world, you don’t get enough time with your family or with nature. Why not use the holiday to enjoy the very things that REI promotes? You can always shop for our products later.

Of course, the company has set up a hashtag, #OptOutside, for customers to share what they are doing on Black Friday. But that, too, seems consistent with the REI brand. Its customers are probably urban people who spend time in the outdoors but take their mobile devices with them.

This reminds me of competitor chain Patagonia’s 2011 counterintuitive — but effective — ad campaign showing one of its most popular products and declaring “Don’t buy this jacket.” Of course, the company didn’t really mind if you bought the jacket, but it wanted to draw your attention to the need for a less wasteful and more recycling-conscious society. “Don’t buy this jacket” was a shrewd and not entirely disingenuous strategy that fit entirely within Patagonia’s aim to position itself as an environmentally aware brand.

I’m not convinced that REI’s Black Friday decision will catch on in the business world. Things like this can certainly go awry: When REI’s chief executive, Jerry Stritzke, recently hosted a question-and-answer session on Reddit to discuss the decision to close on Black Friday, it eventually turned into a litany of employee complaints — probably not what Stritzke had in mind. In any case, REI is going up against a long American retail tradition of deals and sales on the day after Thanksgiving. Plenty of shoppers like it.

But should they? And should retailers be that happy about the crowds they draw? Not necessarily.

The first thing not to like is that low-paid workers get no break with their family and often they do not even get overtime. But it’s hard on the employers, too. Yes, they get a sales lift from offering big discounts, but in the end, people don’t necessarily spend more for holiday shopping. Rather, they spend more that day and less on other days. In addition, spikes and declines in sales hurt operations. Sales spikes make staffing difficult; one day you need 50 people, the next day you need 75. Inventory management is more difficult. The supply chain works better when there is less demand variability.

Even bargain hunters should think twice. As I have pointed out elsewhere, $10 off on Thursday is the same as $10 off on Friday. Most of those deals are already available online, anyway. So the retailers aren’t really doing us any big favor.

But in the end, Thanksgiving remains an authentic American celebration. It isn’t saddled with the commercial pressures of Christmas. Customers don’t have to get gifts for everyone and retailers don’t have to make a huge chunk of their annual income. Thanksgiving is still mainly about family and friends and being grateful. Do we really want to let it be turned into yet another commercialized holiday?

If the demand for Black Friday sales is there, retailers have no choice. So the ultimate decision lies with the customer. If you don’t want a retailer to open on Thanksgiving or even on Black Friday, take your shopping elsewhere and tell them you did through social media. If you know a company doesn’t treat its employees well, take your shopping elsewhere and tell them you did. If enough of us do that, companies will change what they do. It may seem that they don’t mind annoying us, but they don’t want to lose us.

Zeynep Ton is an adjunct associate professor of operations management at the MIT Sloan School of Management and the author of The Good Jobs Strategy: How the Smartest Companies Invest in Employees to Lower Costs and Boost Profits.

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